The sequence of ten vignettes below originally appeared in RAW #8 (1986), the comics anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly; Art gave me pica and line counts and I wrote to spec, unifying the sequence by making each part of it pertain, in one way or another, to the lives of cartoonists. The title, which Art came up with, is a jokey reference to my first novel, Freaks’ Amour (1979). During the time I wrote these, I was also working on a book of linked novellas eventually published, in 1988, as Sunburn Lake, which accounts for the address of the Spangler Home-Study School of Professional Cartooning in the first vignette. In 1985 I’d published Funny Papers, the first novel in my trilogy about the fictional “Derby Dugan” comic strip; for the third novel in the trilogy, Dugan Under Ground (2001), I shamlessly cannibalized from nearly all of these vignettes, which still rank high, near the top, on my list of favorite creations.
His family owned a big old house in Philadelphia, and he claimed the attic for his studio, drawing with a brush and a stub pen on 3-ply kid-finish paper, just like the pros, and mostly copying pictures from his favorite newspaper strips. Years passed, and then–a real milestone in his life, don’t laugh–he found a coupon one day for the Spangler Home-Study School of Professional Cartooning buried in a page of ads for miniature monkeys, trick baseballs, and bike speedometers at the back of a Little Dot comic book. Send Away, it said, For Our Free Talent Test, and he did, to P.O. Box 5, Sunburn Lake, New Jersey. A week later, not even, a smeary ditto with juice stains arrived in his self-addressed envelope, and here’s what it said to do: Draw a desert island, a horse in a speeding gallop, the military budget; draw a man, now draw his wife and make her a scary monster.
In school there was a boy who would draw with his ejaculate, quick-sketching as he jerked off. He could do Popeye, he could do Nancy, he could do the Sad Sack. He could do Kennedy and Khrushchev. He did Khrushchev and his shoe. When he was 18, he vanished. His clothes were found at the end of a pier. Bet you anything, though, he’s not dead.
He hated moving so much. Packing, unpacking, loading, off-loading. He hated dancing with the furniture, and humping box after box, every box a million tons. His comic book collection alone filled seventeen cartons. It drove him crazy, moving, and each time he had to move again, he always said the same thing, usually while he struggled to get the couch through a door and his fingers–his drawing fingers!–were being mashed against the jam. He’d say, “I wish somebody would invent a shrinking ray. I’m serious! You laugh! It looks like a flashlight, all right? But you point it at this shit and everything gets small. Everything fits into the glove compartment. And there’d have to be an enlarging ray, too. A back-to-normal ray. Why doesn’t somebody invent a good ray, for God’s sake? They waste their time on electric curlers, Mr. Coffee–what crap!” He wasn’t serious, but he was. He thought about rays a lot, dreamed them up for others to invent. A better world for you and me. In his perfect world, there’d be color funnies seven mornings a week, and plenty of rays. A ray to make his appendectomy scar vanish, and his acne pits. A ray to make everybody forget they’d just heard him say something incredibly dumb, like call a cabbage a head of lettuce–the Forgetso Ray! A ray to make his ears smaller and his dick longer. A ray to make himself invisible, another to clear his lungs of cigarette tars so he wouldn’t get cancer at 42. He had no interest in real science, only in rays. Specialty Rays. And, occasionally, Death Rays.
The name of Delbert’s course is “The American Gag Cartoon: Aesthetics of a Popular Medium.” Edd thinks it sounds preposterous. When Del told him what the school was charging, he nearly plopped. “People don’t know what to do with their money,” he said. “If I had two bills to burn, I’d go to Florida, not listen to you compare me to Michelangelo.” Know what Del replied? “Small chance of that.” Which struck the old gagman as a wee bit cutting.
Many years ago, I took care of an old man with Parkinson’s Disease. He couldn’t hold his head up, and his lips constantly quivered and bubbled. I rolled his chair into the yard and read to him. We followed the shade. His daughter left postal envelopes containing pills. I fed him those pills, and while he napped, I sketched on the envelopes. I found one yesterday. The daughter had written across the front: Two at lunchtime. And below that I’d drawn a pair of missionaries in a pot of boiling water. Was I trying to be funny, or what?
Used to be fifteen or twenty of them making the rounds, now it’s five or six. Used to be they used to flirt with me every Wednesday, or even talk dirty, but not anymore. They just come slumping off the elevator and sit right down over there with leather portfolios from the Year One, and they wait. It used to be we had a water fountain–it used to be we had a coffee pot. Now we don’t. It’s really sad. And what’s really saddest, you know what’s really saddest? The clothes they wear, these cartoon guys. They still wear checks, they wear double-knit slacks. Used to be, I’d hear them telling funny-drunk stories. Drunks at the barbecue. Who fell in the swimming pool. Funny-wife stories. You know what I hear now? Who died. Who’s down to ninety pounds. I hate them. I’m sorry, but I hate them. In the Fifties they were happy as clams, as the Atom. Do you remember Hazel?
Nosy Brown used to read the gas and electric for a living, before he started writing comics. Down into your basement, and yours and yours and yours, he would creep one late morning every month, this stocky, smiley fellow with eczema at his hairline and a bright-yellow flashlight and a meter-man’s book, and unless you followed close behind and watched him carefully, ninety seconds later he would creep back upstairs and out your front door with a locking pliers or a plumber’s friend, maybe even a cut-glass creamer that your mother got at her bridal shower. And you never noticed. You never did. And that’s because Nosy was a baggy dresser and could always figure where to stick things so they wouldn’t bulge or suddenly drop. Ice skates and hi-hat cymbals, a wheel from an old baby stroller–seriously! Ethel Merman and Paul Whiteman records. You never missed them. People don’t know their cellars, he often said. They don’t know their asses, they don’t know their elbows. It was a compulsion with Nosy, liberating useful things and items of crap wherever he found them, some to keep, some to sell, and some to dump in the closest sewer. It was a big smile, a challenge, a joke.
The script usually arrives in the mail by the tenth, and I start to work on it right away, breaking it down. I’ve never met the guy who writes the book–N.B. Brown–and I’ve spoken with him only once, the time I called to complain about two stories in a row demanding an awful lot of science fiction hardware. Since I have a hard time drawing that shit–machines and rocket ships–I asked the guy to lay off. All right, okay, he said, no problem–and then he goes and sets the next episode in an auto junkyard! Cars, after machinery, give me the most aggravation. Who is this fucking guy Brown? Who is he? He’s ruining my life!
Whenever he’s on the telephone, he has to have a pen in his hand and a pad of unlined paper nearby so that, talking business or just shooting the shit, he can doodle heads. Say he gets a call and there’s no pad and pen within easy reach, he’ll say wait a sec, could you? and then go look. He’ll come back, say thanks for holding, and start right in drawing his tiny little heads–heads only, in profile, with thick brows, googly eyes, blobby noses, mouths wide open, tongues hanging out, spittle flying. He does left-facing profiles, right-facing profiles, he’ll put wild hair on his heads or scratch a little fringe over the ears. Sometimes he indicates a neck, sometimes he even sketches in a sport shirt collar. But that’s as far as he goes, body-wise. He does heads only. Beyond that, he lacks all confidence.
One morning, Delbert Wash and Edd Biggs were talking. “Am I going to end up in there, too?” asked Biggs the gag cartoonist. He meant was it likely that he’d end up as a trimmed obituary in Delbert’s lunch box, which bore on its lid a perishing decal of Felix the Cat. The obituaries–of Cady and Dorgan, Goldberg, Porges, Arno, Kahles, Auerbach-Levy, Gibson, Orr, Outcault, etcetera–were glossy photostatic copies. All jammed together and mixed up with loose Gelusils and Hershey kisses, lecture notes and Kodachromes. “Well,” said Biggs, “am I?” Delbert, the scholar, was finicky; he was discriminating. There were bun crumbs and blackheads at the corners of his mouth. He smiled, and Biggs doodled with a fiber-tip pen on the leg of his duck pants, where his right thigh crossed his left. A tombstone. He added the R.I.P., then a grave blanket. Horizon line. Small house on the horizon. Chimney smoke. A tree. A second tree. The sun. And then he scribbled over everything, and shrugged.